Mary Federico in Board Operations on July 2, 2021
Dear Mary: Problems in my co-op seem to come in only one size: XXL. It seems that our board is always dealing with the latest crisis instead of staying ahead of the curve and working on problems before they grow from manageable to monstrous. How can we shift to attacking problems head-on instead of pretending they’ll go away on their own? – Behind the Curve in the Bronx
Dear Behind the Curve: You see a crisis coming, and you want the board to act. You know what will happen otherwise, because you’ve seen this movie before. Why don’t your colleagues share your sense of urgency?
You may think their behavior is inexplicable, but it’s a good bet they don’t agree. Our own behavior typically makes perfect sense to us. If you want to influence your colleagues, you must understand their perspectives. One-on-one conversations are always a good start, and you should take the time for those. But you still need ideas for what to do next. To help you out, here are common reasons why board members may not want to work on problems before they become crises – and what you might do to change their minds.
Reason: They see the problem as minor, unlikely to persist or grow. So they favor a wait-and-see approach.
Action: Do you have evidence to support a different assessment of the situation? Can you highlight past experiences in your building or elsewhere? If not, try to at least get agreement to revisit the problem after a defined (short) period of time.
Reason: They believe there’s a solution already in the works, and they want to let that play out.
Action: Try to get agreement on how long you’ll give that solution to work (and what “work” means). Can you point to ways the situation has changed since the board agreed to that solution? If so, members may be willing to reconsider it without feeling defensive.
Reason: They’re not confident about finding and implementing a solution, and it seems risky to even try. Trying takes time and effort now, while benefits are uncertain and in the future.
Action: Try to create confidence and certainty about the benefits. Point to past experience in your own building if possible – or that of another building with similar challenges. Consider committing to work on the problem yourself, maybe with another member, as an “experiment.”
Reason: They believe that fixing this problem would be at the expense of other, more important work.
Action: Open a discussion of existing workloads, priorities and resources. Any opportunities to rescope or reschedule a project? Could you work on the problem yourself? Or backfill for a colleague better suited to do so?
Reason: They worry about making people unhappy and damaging relationships, and they feel the harm would outweigh any benefits.
Action: Talk through these considerations. Who might you affect and exactly how? Any way to reduce negative effects? Any way to give something in return for the pain?
Reason: While they’re unlikely to share this, board members may worry about looking bad.
Action: Ask yourself: Will acknowledging, working on or solving this problem make a colleague look incompetent, uncaring or even culpable? If so, how might you stop that from happening? Keep the focus off the past, emphasize what’s appropriate under current conditions and look for ways to let everyone save face.
If board members see a problem as trivial or unsolvable, or believe the cure is worse than the disease, they won’t want to spend time fixing it. Use the tips above to reframe their perceptions, create a sense of urgency and get ahead of the next crisis.
Mary Federico serves on the board of her 240-unit Upper West Side condominium. Through her consultancy, Organizational Behavior Strategies, she helps leaders use behavioral science to improve their organizations.
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